UPDATED: 25 July 2014 at 16:41 GMT
The loss of flight MH17 is not about Malaysia Airlines.
It’s a particularly cruel irony that this carrier has lost a second Boeing 777 with everybody on board – again apparently through no fault of its own.
If this disaster is confirmed as the unintentional shoot-down it appears to be – unintentional in the sense that MH17 was not the intended target – the trigger-happy carelessness that led to it is horrific in its implications.
But this act was no less trigger-happy than the crew of the USS Vincennes when it shot down a scheduled commercial flight from Bandar Abbas to Dubai in July 1988. It was an Iran Air Airbus A300 over international waters in the Strait of Hormuz (Persian Gulf). The Vincennes made no attempt to identify the aircraft before shooting off two missiles. That killed all 290 people on board. The Vincennes was not in a combat zone.
For all its protestations that this event has nothing to do with Russia, the Russian government has been supporting the unrest in eastern Ukraine, and there is no reason to doubt satellite evidence that the fatal missile was launched from that separatist-held area.
It is almost beyond belief that Russian President Vladimir Putin would risk putting in rebel hands weaponry of this power without having control over its use.
Perhaps it will turn out not to be so, but at present Russia’s “explanations” for the shootdown have zero credibility.
And Putin’s unwillingness – or perhaps inability – to exert his influence with the rebels to enable professional investigators to carry out their work at the crash site has drawn universal condemnation at the UN, including by nations that normally stand by Russia come what may.
There are still reasons to be optimistic about the ability of a high quality independent international investigation to come to useful, accurate conclusions about the downing of MH17 despite everything that has been going on.
The investigation must be carried out strictly according to the International Civil Aviation Organisation’s Annex 13, which governs standards for accident investigation, and the Dutch Safety Board (OVV) that has been allocated leadership of the international team is fully aware of this.
The investigation team can be effective despite disadvantages: the accident site was unsecured for a week or more, and is still unsecured now; flight data and cockpit voice recorders were in the hands of unauthorised rebel personnel for several days before they were handed over.
The UK Air Accidents Investigation Branch has been tasked with downloading the recorders and passing the results to the OVV. The AAIB reports the cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder have now been downloaded, and the OVV says the FDR has some damage but the recordings are sound and they do not appear to have been tampered with.
But the fact that evidence and equipment was not held in sterile conditions while awaiting professional investigation gives any nation that does not like the report’s conclusions the opportunity to dismiss them.
I hope no-one will stoop that low, but that is a faint hope.
Meanwhile, there is a case for reviewing the way airspace status over conflict zones is rated and disseminated. At present there is no standardised system.
ICAO is the only agency with the credibility to run such an advisory system, which can only ever be advisory anyway. No agency has the authority to close airspace except the sovereign state beneath it.
In the case of Ukraine, ICAO had not advised airlines to avoid its airspace. Ukraine itself had decided to close its airspace above the conflict zone below 32,000ft (9,000m). MH17 flew over at 33,000ft.
But a part of what the world can do to to make a future MH17 marginally less likely is to set up a system for ensuring that intelligence-based warnings are fed to ICAO by government security agencies. These warnings do not have to compromise the intelligence itself, but they must contain sufficient information to enable ICAO to allocate to specific airspace sectors a categorised risk level that the airlines understand. It would be advisory, and the final decision would still reside with the airlines.
It would be understandable if ICAO’s instinct was to shy away from this responsibility, but if does that, it must make public the fact that it is not in the airspace advice business.
States and airlines will then have to make their own minds up, as they do now, and there will be no global standard on which airline passengers can rely.
STOP PRESS 16:19 GMT 25 JULY 2014: ICAO HAS JUST ANNOUNCED A HIGH LEVEL MEETING ON CIVIL AVIATION IN CONFLICT ZONES AT ITS MONTREAL HQ ON 29 JULY 2014